More and more Americans are walking away from religion. It has been a steadily climbing trend, as surveys in the past few years have shown. The number of unaffiliated, those not claiming any religion, doubled from 8% to 16% between 1990 and 2008. And the latest statistic published by Pew Research on May 12, 2015, shows that more than one out of every five Americans (22.8%) is unaffiliated.
Various Christian researchers, including Thom Rainer, president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources, and Pastor James Emery White, keep tabs on such church trends. Different researchers, studies, and analyses offer a well-rounded perspective on some of the factors driving people out of church doors. Below is a summary, grouped in three main categories, of the most common reasons people give for leaving church.
My needs were not met.
- Church facilities, functions, or materials were outdated.
- Sermons were boring or hard to understand.
- I didn’t like the preaching style and/or music style.
- I didn’t receive enough pastoral care or visitation.
- I felt excluded or on the outside of the group.
- Members were rude or unfriendly
Religion is too political and materialistic.
- Christians are judgmental and/or hypocritical.
- Churches are always asking for money.
- I disagree with the ethical, political, or social stance.
- I don’t want to identify with organized religion.
I wanted or needed a break from church.
- My work schedule does not allow me to attend church.
- I moved to college or away from the community I was established in.
- I had only gone in the past to please others.
- Church/religion was not personally meaningful or valuable to me.
Church leaders, analyzing the above statements and broader trends, offer a slightly different take on the influences causing people to drop affiliation with church and Christianity. The key considerations are summarized here:
- Influence of an increasingly post-Christian culture
- Lack of biblical literacy and familiarity with Christian concepts
- Many members do not develop a sustainable faith of their own.
- Messages fail to connect to relevance of gospel message: Jesus’ life, death, resurrection.
- Theology often focuses on personal experience and following rules.
- Being part of the body of Christ has been reduced to the formality required to become a member.
- Members hold an entitlement mentality rather than servant mentality when it comes to participating in the church.
- Families are not integrated into the life of the church.
- The church doesn’t reach out or connect to the community.
The statements made above point to a huge expanse of room for work and improvement on the part of church member attitudes, church training and discipleship, pastoral leadership, and church organization and activities. Looking at the widely varying causes given for leaving church, it becomes impossible to point fingers at any one actor. Instead, every person has a role to play in restoring and strengthening the health of the church. That may be as simple as being more friendly and welcoming to a new member or guest or as complex as undertaking in-depth discipleship and theological instruction.
Of course, not all the reasons named above are legitimate excuses. Many are thoroughly self-focused and based on a warped expectation of what the church should be, and some arise from a heart condition of rebellion to the truth of Christianity and a desire to escape conviction. There are legitimate reasons to leave a church, such as unbiblical teaching, abusive leadership, or upholding immoral behavior. However, those who leave a specific church for such reasons typically move on to find another, sound church, rather than ceasing to attend church altogether.
Also, it must be noted that amid the frightening statistics about rapidly increasing numbers of unaffiliated, nearly 71% of Americans still claim to be Christians. Whatever work needs to be done in the church, there are plenty of people who should be ready to do it. And their task is not difficult to ascertain. The statements listed above are not necessary to discover what is the essential task for the church in this day and age because, overall, it has not changed from the past centuries:
- Keep the gospel at front and center of every message, every function, every life event.
- Teach the gospel. Don’t assume familiarity and understanding even of simple words and concepts. Define, explain, and connect it to people’s experiences.
- Move members from being served to serving in the body of Christ.
- Reach out to the community, and integrate members into active life in the body of Christ.
- Speak truth, and pray that conviction will be an instrument of grace rather than division.
Read more about the state of the church, reaching the unaffiliated, and building up the church in “When some become none,” in the February 2015 issue of the AFA Journal. Thom Rainer’s books, such as I Am A Church Member and Autopsy of a Deceased Church, and James Emery White’s The Rise of the Nones provide further reading.